I’ve been reading Jonathan Kozol’s book Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation here recently, and I have been blindsided by the daily reality of poverty as well as the complexity of the problem. As a middle-class white male, I often find myself seeking to give easy answers for poverty like “if they worked harder, they wouldn’t be poor,” and “the system of welfare only perpetuates the cycle of poverty” or some other disconnected theoretical BS. Kozol refuses to allow me to stay in that coolly disconnected state. Here’s an excerpt…a real story of poverty that just may wake you up like it has me.
“‘If poor people behaved rationally,’ says Lawrence Mead, a professor of political science at NYU, ‘ they would seldom be poor for long in the first place.’ Many social scientists today appear to hold this point of view and argue that the largest portion of the suffering poor people undergo has to be blamed upon their own ‘behaviors,’ a word they tend to pluralize.
Alice Washington was born in 1944 in New York City. She grew up in Harlem and the Bronx and went to segregated public schools, not something of her choosing, nor that of her mother and her father. She finished high school, studied bookkeeping at a secretarial college, and went to work, beginning at 19. When she married, at the age of 25, she had to choose her husband from that segregated ‘marriage pool’ to which our social scientists sometimes quite icily refer of frequently unemployable black men, some of whom have been involved in drugs or spent some time in prison. From her husband, after many years of what she thought to be monogamous matrimony, she contracted the AIDS virus.
She left her husband shortly after he began to beat her. Cancer of her fallopian tubes was detected at this time, then cancer of her uterus. She had three operations. Too frail to keep on with the second of two jobs that she had held, in all, for nearly 20 years, she was forced to turn for mercy to the City of New York.
In 1983, at the age of 39, she landed with her children in a homeless shelter two blocks from Times Square, an old hotel in which the plumbing did not work and from which she and David and his sister had to carry buckets to a bar across the street in order to get water. After spending close to four years in three shelters in Manhattan, she was moved by the city to the neighborhood where she now lives in the South Bronx. It was at this time that she learned she carried the AIDS virus. Since the time that I met Mrs. Washington, I have spent hundreds of hours talking with her in her kitchen. I have yet to figure out what she has done that was irrational.”
(from pages 21-22 of Kozol’s book)
Now don’t be deceived. In posting this excerpt of reality, I’m not seeking to occupy the opposite extreme of my cool detached classism and racism where every person in poverty is a helpless victim of the system, because that is just as false as saying the poor “just need to work harder.” The reality in this mess is a need for both individual and systemic accountability for action. But I did post it for this reason.
The situation is complex, and if we are to speak of the poor and pursue concrete solutions to poverty, we must embrace the complexity, we must hear the stories from across the spectrum, and we must prepare ourselves to seek the truth in the tension erected between the poles of individual and system responsibility.
At this point in history, we have to deal with the reality, in my view, that the system should carry a heavy disproportionate weight of responsibility to provide help for the poverty-stricken, especially because urban poverty is often minority-heavy, and for over 80% of the existence of the United States of America, the purported “land of the free,” African-Americans were considered (socially and by law) to be second-class citizens…sub-human. We’re fooling ourselves to suggest that the last forty years has erased this disgusting reality.